I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #22:
People who live outdoors. You know how after the rain you see all these dogs that seem lost, wandering around. The rain washes away all their scent, all their direction. So all the people on the album are knit together, by some corporeal way of sharing pain and discomfort.
Back in the mists of time — the '80s — I was entering the lobby of the Wiltern Theater one of the five nights Elvis Costello and the Attractions were putting on their “Spinning Wheel” concerts. The shows comprised full-on festivities with all the festooned trimmings, as go-go dancers in cages frugged away amid a carnival-like atmosphere in a bright, colorful setting replete with props — the main one being a giant spinning wheel with a considerable assortment of Costello-penned song titles radiating out like rays of angry-young-man angst, alienation, and smart pop perfection.
A hands-down bar-none Barnum fun zone, a splendid time was guaranteed for all – especially since there was to be surprise celebrity moderators to randomly draw audience members’ names from a big drum. Where she stops nobody knows, but when she stops, the luckily picked pickee comes up onto the stage with much hoopla and confetti.
Anyway, when I walked into the lobby of the Wiltern, there was Tom Waits surrounded by some orbiting and over-zealous fans. As it would turn out, he was to serve as the evening’s master of ceremonies, in more of a carnival barker mode — a perfect choice, given the crass hard sell huckster persona he assumed in Small Change’s “Step Right Up,” in which he promises all sorts of unlikely miracles and marvels, though inevitably, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away”: "That's right, it filets, it chops/ It dices, slices, never stops/ lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn…"
Waits didn’t look especially happy about the surround-sound mini-mob. I wanted to meet him but I also didn't want to be just another jerk taking up his time — I wanted to be the only jerk taking up his time. But before I kept walking on, he noted my hesitation and caught my eye, subtly nodding his head as if to invite me over. Emboldened and feeling a bit brazen as I was seemingly being summoned, I walked around to the other side and he took this occasion to turn from the crowd to greet me while the other fans got the hint and dispersed.
Needless to say, I was flummoxed and faltering: Waits reached out and shook my hand, and I slack-jaw-yokeled something aw-shucks-like about being a big-time fan — duh, yup yup – and he said in his gargling-with-gravel-and-ground-glass mellifluousness, "Thanks, man." I would like to think, and there was reason to believe, that he was also thanking me for extricating him from loitering lingerers and malingerers — audiophile philistines all!– but I'm not sure.
I did get the impression I could've probably stayed to talk with him — maybe we could have not only talked about the weather but we would’ve hashed out some solutions on what to do about it, dammit. But I was so flustered that what passes for a thought process within me shut down all communication skills. My brain seemed to have imploded — an entire synapse grid shut down. Whatta maroon!
At least Waits didn't turn away from me as a newer batch of fans approached him from the other side…
Anyway, I brought that same kind of circumspect wariness to my initial listen of 1985’s Rain Dogs — 19 songs and 54 minutes seemed daunting in those pre-CD days — but it wasn’t long before Waits’ music, like the man himself, had pulled me into the welcoming gravitational pull.
In any case, I knew to expect again the unexpected once more. The surreal soundscape was part and parcel of the admirably drastic and wholesale transition signaled two years earlier by his idiosyncratically fractured and startling Swordfishtrombone, which marked Waits’ complete transformation from Beatnik barfly to Beefheartian partisan, lyrically wry and musically haunting.
Waits’ great leap inward was further and more fully realized with Rain Dogs — alternately harrowing and heartfelt, colored with quirky creativity throughout, but dotted with some relenting poignancy here and there. Furthermore, Waits’ uniquely inventive and imaginative fever-dream evocation is fueled by his ever-stellar melodic sense and rhythmic pulse, and by the heady impulse of the stream-of-loquaciousness lyrics sung. Or, in the case of the narrated "9th and Hennepin," spoken:
She has that razor sadness that only gets worse
With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by
And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet
'til you're full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…
And I've seen it all, I've seen it all
Through the yellow windows of the evening train…
Some of the credit for the power and cohesiveness of such songs, and the particular brand of insinuating but accessible cacophony, is due to the addition this time around of guitarist Mark Ribot, his angular and spiky punctuation perfectly complementing the quirky intonations and backbeats of Rain Dogs.
Packing a subtle counterpunch, Ribot helps Waits set the album’s tone right away in the first song, “Singapore.” Set against otherworldly percussion, an adventurous and escapist mood permeates within and beyond the confines of the track itself:
We sail tonight for Singapore,
we're all as mad as hatters here
I've fallen for a tawny Moor,
took off to the land of Nod
Drank with all the Chinamen,
walked the sewers of Paris
I danced along a colored wind,
dangled from a rope of sand
You must say goodbye to me
Such insidious intent, of the poetic and visceral kind, encroaches on the three-ring sonic- hell circus of the next two songs, “Clap Hands” and “Cemetery Polka,” as it does elsewhere on Rain Dogs.
As enthralling and perversely disturbing as these kind of potentially claustrophobic Munch-ian psyche-screamers can be, Waits varies his approach with diversionary but captivating songs. Blaring, bluesy and blowsy raucousness drives “Union Square” and “Big Black Mariah,” and in the swaggering “Walking Spanish," “even Jesus wanted a little more time/ When he was walking Spanish down the hall.”
“Blind Love” is a country-ish crying-in-your-beer lament that wouldn’t sound out of place in the big, hundred-year old roadhouse in Northern California which Waits frequents (I was never fortunate to see him when I lived in the area — you know, what with the restraining order and all).
Now the street's turning blue, the dogs are barking and the night has come
And there's tears that are falling from your blue eyes now
I wonder where you are and I whisper your name
The only way to find you is if I close my eyes.
Waits slows down even more with the most accessible and affectingly melodic songs on Rain Dogs. Rod Stewart had a hit with the wonderfully resonant and romantic “Downtown Train,” but Waits brings an extra touch of insistent yearning and melancholy in his plea, "Will I see you tonight on a downtown train?"
The stark and forlorn "Time" showcases again Waits' strength as a lyricist who can be as poignant as he can be provocative, even when it comes to simply words on a page, with no music.
Well the smart money's on Harlow and the moon is in the street
And the shadow boys are breaking all the laws
And you're east of East Saint Louis and the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds like a round of applause.
Of course, as evidenced by the lovely and wistful "Hang Down Your Head," Waits is enough of an accomplished and careful craftsman and truth-seeker to find and express the perfect emotion, the ideal blend of both words and music.
"Hush, you're in a story I heard somebody told," the singer in "Hang" says. And he or she could be talking about something written by Waits, who would know the tale to be true and know it by heart. Especially one recounted in this 1985 release. "For," Waits sings in the title song, "I am a rain dog, too."